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Op-Ed | Section 8, or one man’s quest for a golden ticket

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I am an aspiring software engineer, and first met Bill de Blasio, who was then the Public Advocate, in 2010 at a General Welfare Committee hearing, at which I testified about the challenges of trying to pursue an education while homeless. At the time, he was more than happy to wave me off with platitudes and effectively cover for the poor policies of City agencies. I was 24 years old.

Five years earlier, I had enrolled in Honors College at Adelphi University. During my time there, my recently divorced mother reneged on her agreement to purchase my books. My father tried to send me away for performing poorly academically and locked me out of our apartment when I resisted; with nowhere else to go, I turned to the street. I have struggled with housing insecurity for years and am currently homeless.

Maybe if I had known the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, or “Section 8,” existed at just about any time between becoming homeless and meeting de Blasio, my experience would have been different. But even if I had known about Section 8, it might not have helped because the Section 8 waiting list was closed due to a lack of Federal funding for the program. In fact, it would take a crisis of COVID proportions for the Section 8 waiting list to finally be reopened. Only one out of every four eligible households receive Federal rental assistance.

It is easy to feel like politicians don’t care about me and other homeless people when they shuffle us around without helping connect us to what we truly need: a home of our own. And it is particularly frustrating when a proven solution is staring us in the face, but politicians lack the political will to enact the necessary policies – like making Federal housing vouchers an entitlement for all who need them. Instead, many of us face years-long waiting lists for rental assistance while simultaneously enduring a pandemic and homelessness.

For several months during the pandemic, congregate shelters moved to hotels to be safer from the virus. While I only experienced this for two months, it confirmed for me how much I could hope to accomplish if provided with a stable, semi-functional environment. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be – Mayor de Blasio ended the pandemic hotel shelter program, and I was transferred yet again.

Despite submitting multiple reasonable accommodation requests for a single-occupancy room to reduce my potential COVID-19 exposure, I was instead given a placement in a two-man room where I can scarcely hear myself think. I long for the privacy and dignity I briefly experienced in a private hotel room, and I am working diligently to access permanent housing. The one silver lining is that shortly after my arrival at my current shelter, I was able to successfully complete the survey for the Federal Emergency Housing Voucher. I am presently awaiting my eligibility interview.

If it wasn’t for CityFHEPS, the City’s go-to voucher for the housing insecure, I would have little recourse but to languish in the shelter system. Fortunately, after concerted effort by several grassroots organizations over the course of a few hard-fought years, the CityFHEPS maximum rent values were raised, finally making the vouchers usable. With the help of a broker, I found an apartment at last, and hope to move in next month.

While Intro. 146 effectively raised CityFHEPS payments to levels comparable to those of Section 8, there is still no real comparison to be made between the two. For example, no matter how much I might want to use my CityFHEPS voucher outside the city, I can’t.

Universal access to Section 8 could tremendously decrease homelessness, food insecurity, domestic violence, and family separation, while increasing access to opportunity. Our worsening housing crisis is too often accepted as inevitable, rather than as a problem in need of urgent policy solutions.

Given the massive impact of the pandemic on the city’s homeless and rent-insecure populations, who were already struggling pre-pandemic, it is critical we use this inflection point as an opportunity to call on the Federal government to expand Section 8 and provide housing assistance for all who need it.

Tens of thousands of New Yorkers cannot wait any longer.

Tokuhisa is a member of the Coalition for the Homeless’ Client Advisory Group.

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